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Why buy and eat food grown close to home?

by Doris Penner

It's berry season in Manitoba. There's no pleasure quite like biting into a crimson sun-warmed strawberry or indulging in a bowlful of raspberries sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with cream or finding an area where saskatoons hang heavily on the bushes and filling a bucket in no time.

Hard as it is to believe, there are people who will buy berries shipped in from the southern states while the Manitoba-raised is fruit hanging in perfect bunches from the vines in a field just down the road. Indeed, sometimes it is more cumbersome to buy fresh Manitoba berries because one has to make a special trip to get them, and shipped-in berries may be less expensive.

And this is true of vegetables as well. For many consumers where a food is grown or even fresher taste and texture are not as important as convenience and price.  And it's true, the quality of many fruits and vegetables found in the supermarket shipped in from halfway around the world is surprisingly good.

However, there are a dozen other compelling reasons why you should consider buying foodstuffs produced locally—including fruits, vegetables, meats, bread and dairy—whenever possible.

Affects nutrient content

From June to October, locally grown vegetables and fruits can be purchased within hours of picking—this freshness not only affects taste but also nutrient content. Studies have shown that produce has the highest nutritional just after harvesting at full maturity. The longer the fruit or vegetable stays on the plant or in the ground and the quicker it gets to the table after picking, the less the risk of nutrient loss. This is especially true for water-soluble nutrients such as vitamins B and C.  Shipped-in produce, of course, is never picked ripe because it would turn mushy before it gets to its destination.

In addition, locally grown fresh food likely has fewer additives. Some countries of origin use herbicides and pesticides Canada would never allow (and doesn’t need because of our cooler climate), and while inspection takes place when imported food enters the country, not a large percentage is actually screened. And let’s face it, the more a food  is handled when brought in from around the world, the greater the risk of E. coli or salmonella.

Indeed, there are market gardeners in southeastern Manitoba—family-owned enterprises such as God's Acres—that go completely chemical-free in raising fruits and vegetables, whether officially certified as organic or not. Rich Lane Farms raises grass-fed meat without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.

Fuel consumption

One significant reason to consider buying locally is for environmental reasons—no surprise there. It is estimated that on average, any given item on the plate of a North American has traveled 1,500 miles. You can imagine the impact trucking and shipping has on the environment in terms of fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that buying food produced close to where we live consumes about 18 times less oil and gas than a typical diet consisting of shipped-in foods.

One question often asked is why foodstuffs produced locally are more expensive that what is shipped in from thousands of miles away. The short answer is that the consumer isn’t aware of “behind-the-scene” factors. The item one buys in the supermarket might have received government subsidies or a tax break, but be assured somewhere down the road consumers will pay for it in other ways—through taxes, perhaps, and through the effects of pollution. 

Certainly, buying locally puts you in touch with the seasons. Buying from the farmers’ market or at the farm gate plugs you into the knowledge of when and how fruits and vegetables mature. It allows you to eat foods at their peak in flavour. This is an invaluable concept to pass on to children who, in this day and age might be losing the link to growing food.